Actor David Earl: ‘Sex scenes? I’d rather go back to gardening’

The actor, comedian and former gardener David Earl, 48, got his breakthrough by creating standup character Brian Gittins. He’s best known for his collaborations with Ricky Gervais, appearing in the TV series Derek and After Life and the film Cemetery Junction. He co-hosts podcasts Chatabix and My New Football Club with Joe Wilkinson, with whom he also co-created sitcom The Cockfields. Earl co-wrote and stars in Brian and Charles, a film about a lonely inventor who builds a robot best friend, out next week.

Your film Brian and Charles won the audience award at last month’s Sundance festival in London. Was that a proud moment?
We didn’t even know there was an award, so it was lovely. I never win anything and was leaving early because I had a headache, until someone told me I needed to come back.

Did the triumph cure your headache?
Do you know what, it did! I’m pinching myself. It’s been a strange journey. When we made the short film version in 2017, I remember saying: “Well, that’ll get 200 views on YouTube.” But it got a really nice response and Film4 asked us to develop it into a feature.

How did the idea of a homemade robot called Charles Petrescu come about?
I was doing an internet radio show as Brian, the most inept phone-in host. I didn’t have much of an audience, and one night, Rupert [Majendie, producer of Brian and Charles], Skyped in but was too shy to talk, so he used voice simulation software instead. This professor-like robotic voice really made me laugh. I’d chat to him and it would take Rupert 20 seconds to type replies, so I’d play the patient mate, sort of falling in love with a robot. Chris was listening [Chris Hayward, who co-wrote the film and plays Charles] and said: “I really want to do it live, let’s make Charles.” We built him over a weekend, then did a few gigs together, which were great fun.

What was your first attempt made out of?
Just a cardboard box for a body and a litter-picker attached to a mannequin’s head, so Chris could move the mouth. Ingenious. The voice software was called Charles, and Rupert’s favourite Chelsea footballer was Dan Petrescu, so that’s where the name came from.

Charles turns into a robotic moody teenager at one point. As a father of three, was that based on your own parenting experiences?
Definitely. When we were writing, my boy was about 15, so I was going through all that. Struggling with the pain of letting go and that push-pull relationship. So I took quite a lot of scenes from our life. In fact my boy came to the premiere and said: “Oh my God, that’s you and me.” I was like: “Hell, yeah. I vented in this film, don’t worry about that.” No, it was a really sweet moment.

What were your influences on the film?
We wanted to make a family movie, like live-action Pixar with a bit of magic. Wallace and Gromit was an influence. Also documentaries like American Movie, which is my favourite film, and a 90s video diary series called Summer on the Estate, set in Hackney. And Dead Man’s Shoes and Rocky.

That’s quite an eclectic mix …
It is, isn’t it? We chucked any old shit at the wall.

There’s an imaginary friend element to it. Did you have imaginary friends growing up?
I had a couple, as it goes. It’s not something I’ve spoken about before. They were funny little characters. I remember going out to my nan’s garden and having a chat with them. When we were initially writing the film, we didn’t quite know what Charles would be. Is he an alien who’s crash-landed from a planet full of Charleses? Do we reveal at the end that it’s just Brian dragging around a washing machine and it’s all been in his mind? But that would be annoying and the audience would feel cheated.

There’s a sweet romance between Brian and an equally shy local woman, played by Louise Brealey. Are you a soppy romantic at heart?
I think so. The film that’s made me cry the most is The Bridges of Madison County. I absolutely adore that film and always return to it as a reference point.

But you’ve sworn off ever doing sex scenes …
I’d rather go back to gardening. I overheard some guys recently saying: “If you’re going to do a robot movie, why not have a scene where you have sex with him?” They were genuinely pissed off that we weren’t having it off.

You wear a balaclava in the film and are often heavily disguised for screen roles. Does that mean you don’t get recognised much?
I’m not keen on being noticed. I try and change my look, so I can shave it all off and go incognito. I just like doing the work, going home and hiding. I think I’m in the wrong industry. When After Life [Ricky Gervais’s Netflix series, in which Earl appears] came out, I sensed a little change, but I can still lie pretty low. That’s why I’ve slipped into writing more. I like the creative side, but the performance side and its repercussions are quite stressful. I’ve seen fame happen to friends and I don’t want that.

Is that partly why you live in Devon?
My wife’s originally from Devon and we wanted to bring up the kids down here. But maybe there is something about detaching slightly from London, too.

You’ve worked a lot with Ricky Gervais. How did that relationship begin?
I made a short film about a monster hunter and it ended up on his agent’s desk. Ricky watched it, then rang me up straight away. I was driving a van for a living and went “Fucking hell!” because I was a huge fan of The Office. He loved all my characters, which gave me confidence at the start of my career. I was advised to do standup to get myself out there, and whenever I had a bad gig – and there were quite a few – I’d get a voicemail saying: “What you’re doing is good, just keep going.” He wouldn’t ever admit it, but Ricky’s support helped me hugely in those early years.

Ricky often runs into controversy. What do you make of that?
He does, along with many others, but it blows over and becomes old news pretty quickly. I feel like a lot of that stuff happens on social media. In the real world, like down in Devon with my neighbours, I don’t know if people feel the same.

As well as van-driving, you used to be a gardener. Was it a big step to give that up?
Yeah. Ricky said: “You’ve got to give up your gardening.” I said: “Oh no. I earn £60 on a Friday and know it’s going to be in my pocket. I won’t know what’s coming if I jack it in.” But when he cast me in Derek, I said: “OK, let’s try it and see if I’ll last.” And I have, somehow.

Do you miss gardening?
My body misses it. I miss the physical side and not being so much in my head.

Were you Britain’s only horticultural comedian?
Do you think? Titchmarsh is quite cheeky.

You had a spoof Twitter account as sex therapist Dr Peter Thraft. How come he’s gone quiet?
A lot of people thought Steve Coogan or Chris Morris were behind it. I thought: “I’ll take that!” As soon as people found out it was me, it felt like the joke was finished.

When did you first realise you wanted to make people laugh?
Watching and rewatching Fawlty Towers as a kid. The person who made me want to get on stage was Harry Hill. When I saw his Man Alive tour aged 21, it’s the most I’ve laughed at anything. I thought if I could make one person laugh the way I did that night, that’d be perfect. I’ve yet to do that, obviously.

Next up, you’re in comedy film Apocalypse Clown. What’s that about?
It’s about this gang of clowns who find themselves in a strange situation. We filmed it this spring in Ireland. It’s kind of a road movie, heading towards this ridiculous climax. I’m wearing a red nose for most of it, so I’m in disguise again.

Might we see a Brian and Charles sequel someday?
Someone mentioned doing a road movie across America. I’d love to make the most boring road movie ever. Nothing happens. Just me and a robot eating snacks at roadsides.

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